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By Janet Lafleur

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About this blog: My love affair with the bicycle began with a crush on my first red tricycle that I pedaled in circles on the driveway. The crush grew into full-blown passion when my dad threw Stingray handlebars and a banana seat on my older sist...  (More)

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A Couple's Guide to Pedaling in Tandem

Uploaded: Sep 22, 2013
You've probably seen that unhappy couple on the bike path or on the road. They start off together and within seconds, one partner has zoomed ahead while the other struggles to keep up or gets left far behind. It doesn't have to be that way. On a two-person tandem bicycle, a couple that rides at different speeds on individual bikes can stay together and chat easily for the whole ride.

Riding a tandem requires teamwork, though. The front rider (captain) does all the steering and braking, which means earning and keeping the trust of the rear rider (stoker). For most tandem bikes, the riders must pedal in synch at the same rate, which means compromise. When teamwork fails, the two-wheeled romance of a tandem can turn sour, earning tandems the harsh nickname "divorce machines." A popular adage goes "Whichever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster." How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, although our route for the post-wedding procession was a long twisty descent down Mt Hamilton. An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start without wobbling, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand on the bike to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker to "trust the captain" and tells the captain that "the stoker is always right." To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it's all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are. I'm not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I've done 50+ mile rides in both the captain's and stoker's seat. I've finished every ride on good terms with my partners and learned a few things in the process.

Here are a few things I've learned as a captain:
* Talk, talk, talk about what you're about to do, especially with a new stoker. "I'm shifting", "Coasting now," "Bump ahead," "Turning left," "Standing."
* Encourage feedback from your stoker. "Is this gear comfortable?" "Was the speed OK on that downhill?"
* Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn't comfortable with.
* The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I've learned as a stoker:
* Be patient when the captain does something you don't like. He or she wasn't doing it to make you mad.
* Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
* Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don't wiggle too much.
* For a quick power boost, you can stand and pedal while the captain stays seated. Just don't rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There's a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the road. You'll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

By the way, tandems are not just for couples, they're also a good option for parents and kids. They allow the parent to maintain safe control of the bike and the kid to still be an active participant. They're great for school drop-off routes that have more challenging roads along the way, and you won't need to leave a kid's bike at school. They make three-person triple tandems too. I spotted a father with two empty seats and two child helmets dangling off the handlebars on Middlefield Road one morning during school drop-off time.

How to Get Started

Rent a Tandem. If you and your partner have never ridden a tandem before, it's a good idea to try it out before making an expensive commitment. If you can't borrow one from a friend, you can rent a tandem in San Francisco from most of the bike rental companies catering to tourists. Most offer upright "comfort" tandems. Blazing Saddles also offers light-weight road tandems, a triple tandem and one that puts the child in front.

Wherever you rent the bike, walk the bike to a calm, less congested area before you hop on. You'll probably be wobbly at first and you don't want to hurt yourselves or terrorize the people around you. You may find it easier to ride in Golden Gate Park during its Sunday road closures than in the busier Fisherman's Wharf area.

Buy a Tandem. As a specialty item, only a select few bike shops carry tandems. Walt's Bicycles in Sunnyvale offers both new and used tandems, including a lovely vintage Schwinn tandem. The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos sells more performance-oriented tandems, from road race worthy ones to ones designed for child-sized stokers. Both shops will let you test ride their tandems. The Bicycle Outfitter also offers daily rentals of two of their bikes. Finally, there's a small but steady market for used tandems. After all, not all tandem bicycle partnerships work out.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

Comments

Posted by Matt Schmidt, a resident of another community,
on Sep 23, 2013 at 4:40 pm

My wife and are sometime tandem riders. Less so since our the three kids, 9 and 6 yrs old entered the scene (soon will get the niner up as stokers). Would agree that they are a great "test vehicle" for a marriage. We've only found one better test. That was a twin seat sit-in kayak. We'd both paddled singles, but the dynamic of two paddles splashing and a tippy boat are like nothing in the world.


Posted by Cappy, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Sep 24, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Ha :) Just thinking about back in our younger crazier days, we'd go tandem mountain biking...we took our wives as stokers one ride...shoulda thought that one out more. Both were strong experienced mtb riders, but we almost ended up in tandem divorce court after that one.
My buddy's wife told him he wasn't even allowed to ask her if she wanted to stoke on a ride. Happy ending though, they're still together 15 years later and still laugh about that ride.


Posted by Captain Daddy, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Sep 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm

My tandem adventures are on a "bolt on" tandem. These are commonly known as Trail-a-bikes, Tag-a-longs, and I'm sure a few other names. My stoker is my 7 yr old daughter. Its the perfect tool for enabling her to go on long rides with me w/out the worry of her hitting the wall 5 miles from home. I pick her up from aftercare on it which is an instant mood improver, and on weekends we'll go on longer rides.

What I didn't realize was how much of an upper body work out I would get. An active 7 y.o. moves around quite a lot and sometimes(most times) unexpectedly. This can cause the bike to swerve if you're not on top of things as a captain. A tight grip on the bars and reacting quickly to unexpected movements is needed. At first, at the end of a long ride w/ her on the back, my hands/arms/shoulders/back were really tired from keeping the bike on line. Those muscles must have become stronger because I don't notice it much anymore. Benefit! :)


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